Although Chelsea nowadays are regarded as a premiere choice for youth players to learn their trade, due to the world class coaching and training facilities, and the relentless push for success at every age group, it wasn’t always like this. The change in approach in the late 2000s towards supporting the academy infrastructure is finally baring fruit: a promising crop of youngsters, Chelsea-bred, who have ascended through the youth team towards first team superstardom.
Another name should be etched alongside the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham. One of the most talented youngsters at the squad at the time, Jérémie Boga never quite managed to translate youth team success into a shot at succeeding on the pitch at SW6. Was it bad luck, poor judgement, or simply the case of not being as good as expected?
A Bright Star
Jérémie Boga joined Chelsea in 2009, from ASPTT Marseille when his family emigrated from Marseille to London for work. Regarded as a rising talent in France, those in the know viewed the acquisition of Boga with surprise and intrigue. Nurtured within the academy set-up, the young Frenchman received a chance to impress just after his fourteenth birthday, playing 90 minutes in the Premier League Reserve League against London rivals Fulham in 3-2 victory that Romelu Lukaku, Patrick Bamford and Ismael Seremba all scored in.
Manager Dermot Drummy was aware of the prodigious talent at his disposal and Boga became a much more frequent name on the team-sheet one season later, making 6 appearances at Premier League 2 level, 3 matches in the U21 Premier League Qualification competition and 3 appearances in the FA Youth Cup. Just 8 minutes into his PL2 debut, having replaced Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Boga would score his first of three goals in this competition. At just 16, this raised eyebrows. Despite his diminutive height, Boga possessed fast feet and a surprising amount of strength, as well as intelligent movement on and off the ball. It would be hard to decide between Boga’s best performance in this year – at 15, he was Chelsea’s one player who could hold their head high after succumbing to a disappointing 4-2 aggregate loss against Norwich in the FA Youth Cup Final, scoring twice at Stamford Bridge from a centre-forward, false nine role, and also starred in a stunning comeback against Liverpool U23s in November 2012 in PL2, substituted on at half-time to score twice as Chelsea turned a 3-0 defeat into a respectable away point in the space of 45′.
The next season was another year of good progress for Boga. Although he did not feature in the FA Youth Cup, he notched four assists and one goal in 11 U21 Premier League appearances, playing almost 800′ minutes and scored his first UEFA Youth League goal aged just 17 in a 4-1 rout against AC Milan. More importantly, Boga began to define his preferred position: having previously been deployed across the entire front three, attacking midfield and wide midfield, he settled comfortably into a second striker role.
Recognition, Rennais and Rojiblancos
Not even aged 18, Boga by now was firmly set as a jewel in Chelsea’s youth crown. He would feature in three competitions for the Blues, winning two pieces of silverware in the process. The most disappointing tournament in terms of success was PL2, with a youthful Chelsea outfit finishing third behind the two Manchester clubs. They did however, boast the youngest squad in the division and Boga contributed three goals and assist in 18 appearances. His versatility to play up-front, out wide and in midfield was a welcome bonus. The Frenchman also featured heavily in the FA Youth Cup, although he was unable to have quite the impact of two years prior. He did, however, have a happier ending this time around, as Chelsea triumphed over Manchester City 1-3 at Etihad Campus and then 2-1 at Stamford Bridge to lift the trophy. Boga also starred as Chelsea dominated the UEFA Youth League, smashing teams left right and centre to out-score opponents on the way to their first title. Scoring braces against NK Maribor and Sporting Youth, Boga also starred in the exciting attacking triumvirate in the final, assisting two goals from his left-wing role. 18 year old Boga managed to get a spot on the bench for Chelsea’s final Premier League match of the season in 2014-15, and watched the ticker-tape flew for Jose Mourinho and the team, no doubt wondering if he would be part of the next time.
Having impressed in Chelsea’s youth system, it was time for Boga to begin the much-trodden path of loan deals to get first team experience. A return to France and Stade Rennais seemed like a sensible choice. Expected to deputise for fan favourite Paul-Georges Ntep, and club star Kamil Grosicki on the wings, Boga found minutes hard to come by. By early November, Boga had made 6 substitute appearances, amounting to little over 100′ minutes. In part this was Porto’s on-loan playmaker Juan Fernando Quintero locking down the attacking midfield role, and despite flattering to deceive as number 10, he curried favour with the manager Philippe Montanier for occasional flashes of brilliance. Although Boga scored his first senior goal against Reims in 2-2 draw later in November, a factor outside of his control had already started to limit his minutes.
Ousmane Dembele, a stunning home-grown talent was beginning to be the only name on fan’s lips at Roazhon Park and a poor performance against Marseille sent Boga back to the bench. Although he would play the full ninety minutes against Estac Troyes and FC Lorient, scoring against the latter in a regional derby, Boga would only start one more match all season against OCG Nice in April 2016 (having netted against them in the Coupe De France a day after his nineteenth birthday), and wouldn’t even feature on the final match day. Although three goals and a solitary assist in 34 matches (1,209 Minutes) looks like a poor return, it’s worth noting that Boga only managed to start a small portion of those games. In hindsight, the club perhaps should have reacted when Dembele started to break out and consider moving Boga onto a different club.
With one season of senior football under his belt (at least in theory), the Frenchman departed on loan once again. This time, the hierarchy at Chelsea decided on warmer climates for Boga, sending him to Granada CF in Spain. Boga was accompanied by Victorien Anggban and joined a motley crew of loan players that formed the Granada squad, including Guillermo Ocho, Adrian Ramos and Andreas Pereira. Boga started his first three games for Granada and grabbed a goal on just his second appearance – unfortunately it was in 5-1 drubbing against UD Las Palmas. With Paco Jemez under pressure already, he turned tinker-man and Boga only played 11′ minutes in the next six matches, as Jemez was sacked and replaced by Lucas Alcaraz. Recalled to the squad as a substitute, Jérémie Boga had a simple task – score against FC Barcelona. Boga did feature in the ten of the next elevan matches, but only grabbed one assist as Granada were hopelessly outclassed. At least Boga’s one assist came in a victory – they would only achieve this feat once subsequently until February 7th 2017. Boga was now 20 and whispers were suggested this bright star at youth level was beginning to fade. Boga only scored once more that season, albeit against FC Barcelona in 1-4 loss, but rarely completed ninety minutes as they went on a shocking run, picking up one point from March 4th to May 19th and relegated ignominiously with just 20 points in total. The most notable thing was Boga switched nationalities from France, to represent the Ivory Coast. Again you could argue Boga struggled to put up numbers, with just two goals and one assist, but amazingly, he was joint fourth-top goalscorer.
Burnley, Brummies and Bye-Bye
Despite notching just four senior goals so far in his career, Jérémie Boga was still viewed alongside Charley Musonda as prime talent ripe for development at Chelsea. A surprise selection for the pre-season tour of China, Boga featured in (x) games, impressing with his quick feet and speed. The surprise substitute for Pedro against Arsenal, Boga was unlucky not score as Chelsea avenged their FA Cup final loss by winning 3-0 in The Bird’s Nest, one of the few players to get any credit as Chelsea lost 3-2 to Bayern Munich after being utterly outplayed for 70 minutes, coming on against Inter Milan to add life to a limp Chelsea performance in the ICC and staying on the bench as Chelsea lost to Arsenal in the Community Shield in August. Viewed as an enigmatic option, Jérémie Boga was handed a surprise start on the opening day of the Premier League season. Unsure of what to expect, pundits and fans alike quickly Googled his name. Yet Boga’s shock debut ended in disappointing fashion. With no fault or blame attached to the Ivorian, he was hooked for Andreas Christensen, after Gary Cahill inexplicably took out Steven Defour on his first outing as permanent club captain.
With Conte using every piece of media to criticise the club for a lack of signings, instead of turning towards youth products at his disposal, the writing was on the wall for Jeremie Boga (as indeed it had been for Ola Aina a season prior). A new 3 year contract at the end of August raised some eyebrows amongst fans, as Boga was shipped out on loan to Birmingham City in the Championship. Arguably a step down from previous loans, but undoubtedly a more competitive league overall, Boga was one of six debutants against Norwich City for Steve Cotteril’s outfit. He featured frequently for the Brummies up until the end of September, but Cotteril imposed a strict fitness regime on Boga and he only made three substitute appearances until late November, when he scored his first Birmingham goal – a stunning curling strike which would win Birmingham’s Goal of the Season award – ironically against fellow Chelsea loanee Jamal Blackman.
From this point on, Boga was a pretty permanent fixture in the starting between the left wing, right wing and second striker roles. Birmingham continued to suffer erratic form and skirted in and around the relegation zone from the Championship, with Cotteril’s job increasingly under scrutiny. Boga did grab an assist against Reading and score against Sunderland in an important relegation dogfight. But Cotteril was sacked at the end of February and replacement Gary Monk chose pragmatism over the flair and guile that Boga offered, determined to keep the St. Andrews club from dropping down a division. Boga did pick up assists against Cardiff and Burton Albion, but it was clear that he was not going to be a long term option for Monk and he dropped him fully from the squad for the final few gruelling matches. Birmingham avoided relegation, finishing 19th. 21 year old Boga ended another unsatisfactory season, that started with such promise with just two goals and three assists, in a league that he was expected to dominate.
A pattern emerges with all of his loan spells – they were with teams that either struggled at first, or struggled completely through the season and Boga never really got to express himself in an attacking outfit. The closest to this was Stade Rennais, but they were prioritising their own crown jewel of Ousmane Dembele. Did Boga really have an attitude and weight problem as Cotteril suggested? Only he knows. Rather, Boga seemed to be an easy scapegoat for the team underperforming.
Needing a new start, it was not a huge surprise when Boga was sold to Sassuolo in July 2018. Chelsea clearly still had some vested interest in the player, registering a buy-back clause in the hope that Boga would finally rekindle the promise and quality he showed at youth level. His first season in Italy was blighted by injury and again, Boga only ended with three goals and a solitary assist to show for his 1,439 minutes. However, something finally clicked at the start of the 2019-20 season.
Whether it was just maturity, or perhaps finally feeling like he was trusted again, Boga returned to producing electric and scintillating performances. Despite a mid-table position for I Neroverdi, Boga impresses week-in-week-out alongside teammates Fransceco Caputo and Domenico Berardi. With goals against Inter Milan (haunting Antonio Conte in the process) and Juventus (showing Maurizio Sarri what he could have had if he gambled on the buy-back clause), Boga currently has 8 goals and 4 assists in 24 appearances (1,875 Minutes). If Boga is willing to return to a rotation role in London, he should be welcomed back with open arms. He has clearly matured and evolved his playing style during his years in the wilderness, and is probably closer than ever to starting to fulfil his incredible potential. It might be three years after expected, but perhaps Boga’s next appearance at Stamford Bridge can be more successful than before. It would be very hard for it to be worse.